Last Updated on October 25, 2023 by Dr Sharon Baisil MD
Suspense is one of the most important elements of a good story. It keeps readers hooked, wondering what will happen next. In this article, we will discuss everything about suspense writing. We will give you tips for creating suspense in your writing. Then, we will provide excerpts from popular books to show you how it’s done. Suspense is a powerful tool, and with these tips and examples, you’ll be able to use it to create stories that keep your readers captivated until the very end!
What is Suspense in Writing?
Suspense is a feeling of excitement and anticipation created by withholding information from the reader. It is what keeps readers turning the pages, wondering what will happen next. Suspense can build tension and conflict in a story, and it can be used to create mystery and intrigue.
20 Tips for creating suspense in your writing, with examples
Here are a few tips for creating suspense in your writing:
#1 Start with a bang
The best way to create suspense is to start your story with a bang. Grab the reader’s attention right away and keep them hooked until the end.
For example, the first sentence of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is: “If you want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like.” This grabs your attention and makes you want to find out more.
Or, take Stephen King’s novel, “It”. The first sentence is: “The terror, which would not end for another three years, had begun.” This sentence instantly grips you and pulls you into the story.
#2 Establish the stakes early on
The higher the stakes, the more suspense you can create. Establish what is at stake for your characters and keep ratcheting up the tension as the story progresses. In
In the Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins builds suspense by gradually revealing how much is at stake for each character.
In Stephen King’s “Misery,” Paul Sheldon is held captive by Annie Wilkes and forced to write a novel based on her twisted fantasies. The stakes are high for Paul, and the suspense is ratcheted up as Annie gets closer and closer to killing him.
In both of these examples, the stakes are established early on and continue to build as the story progresses, which helps create suspense for the reader.
#3 Add Suspenseful dialogues
One of the best ways to create suspense is through dialogue. Have your characters keep secrets from one another, or have them ask questions that they don’t want the answers to.
Example: In Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” everyone on the train is a suspect, and each character has something to hide. The dialogues are full of suspense as the characters figure out who the killer is.
#4. Keep the suspense going
Don’t let the suspense dissipate in the middle of your story. Keep the tension high and make sure the reader constantly wonders what will happen next.
Example: In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Jeffries is stuck in his apartment with a broken leg, and he spends his time spying on his neighbors. The suspense builds as Jeffries gets closer and closer to solving the mystery.
#5 Suspenseful cliffhangers
End your chapters with a suspenseful cliffhanger that will keep the reader wanting more.
Example: In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss is in the arena, fighting for her life, and the suspense builds as she comes closer and closer to winning.
#6 Use conflict and tension
Conflict and tension are the bread and butter of suspense. Without them, your scene will be dull and lifeless. Add conflict between your characters and make sure the stakes are high.
Example: In “Psycho,” Norman Bates is a serial killer who lives with his mother. The tension is high from beginning to end, as the reader wonders what will happen next.
#7 Suspenseful flashbacks
A flashback can be a great way to create suspense. Have your protagonist remember a past event full of danger and suspense.
Example: In “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Lisbeth Salander recalls her time working for a secret government agency, which is full of thrilling suspense scenes.
#8 Don’t let the reader off the hook
Keep the reader guessing until the very end. Don’t give away too much information, and make sure they constantly wonder what will happen next.
Example: In “The Sixth Sense,” Malcolm Crowe is a psychologist trying to help a young boy named Cole. The suspense builds as Crowe gets closer and closer to solving the mystery.
#9 Make the reader work for it
Not everything should be spelled out for the reader. Leave some things a mystery and make them work for it. The more the reader has to think about, the more suspense they will feel.
Example: In “Inception,” Dom Cobb is a professional thief specializing in infiltrating people’s dreams. The plot is full of twists and turns, and the suspense is kept high until the very end.
Rowling brilliantly creates suspense by withholding information from the reader. For example, in Chamber of Secrets, we will wonder what’s going on with Moaning Myrtle and whether she knows something about the Chamber of Secrets. Rowling also uses foreshadowing to hint at future events, like when Dumbledore mentions that Tom Riddle, the villain, was interested in Horcruxes before Harry even knows what they are. This builds anticipation and makes the reader desperate to discover what happens next.
#10 Use red herrings to mislead the reader
A red herring is a false lead that misleads the reader and distracts them from the real solution. Use them to keep the reader guessing until the very end.
Red herrings can create suspense by making the reader question who is responsible for the crime. Make sure that the clues you include are plausible so that the reader is tempted to believe them. However, make sure you also plant false clues to keep the reader guessing.
For a suspense example, in the book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the protagonist Nick is suspected of killing his wife, Amy. However, throughout the book, the reader is misled as various clues suggest that different people may have been responsible for her death. In the end, it is revealed that Nick actually did kill Amy, but he used red herrings to mislead the police and cast suspicion on other people.
#11 Use dread to create suspense
Dread is a feeling of fear and anticipation. Use it to create suspense in your short story or novel. Make the readers feel like they are on the edge of their seats, waiting to learn what will happen next.
Example: In “Dawn of the Dead,” a group of survivors is trapped in a shopping mall, and they must fight off hordes of zombies. The suspense builds as the characters get closer and closer to being killed.
#12 Create suspense through the atmosphere
One way to create suspense is by carefully crafting the atmosphere of your story. You can use descriptive language to set a tense and eerie mood, and this will help keep your readers on their toes, waiting to see what happens next.
For example, in Stephen King’s novel “The Shining,” the author uses detailed descriptions of the hotel to create a sense of foreboding. He writes, “The Overlook had always seemed like a place where only malignant things could happen.”
This creates suspense because the reader is constantly waiting for something bad to happen. You can use this technique in your writing to create an unsettling feeling for your readers.
#13 Uncover the mystery
Another way to create suspense is by slowly revealing the mystery of your story. You can tease your readers with clues and hints, making them desperate to find out what happened.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None,” the characters all receive invitations to a party on an island. They soon realize that they are the only guests and that there must be a murderer among them. The suspense is created as Christie slowly reveals the characters’ dark secrets and motives.
In J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Holden Caulfield is trying to find out what happened to his former classmate, James Castle, who may have committed suicide. Again, the suspense is created as Salinger slowly reveals clues about Castle’s death.
#14 Use foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a great way to hint at something terrible that will happen later on in the story. It can add an extra layer of suspense for the reader, making them more likely to keep reading to find out what happens next. Foreshadowing can be done through dialogue, action, or description.
For example, in the book “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins, the protagonist constantly watches a couple living in a house near her train stop. She becomes obsessed with them and begins to think they are having an affair. One day, she sees something shocking happen in their backyard and realizes she was wrong about them the whole time.
Paula uses foreshadowing to hint that the protagonist is about to see something bad happen, and it makes the reader more interested in finding out what happens next.
#15 Dramatic irony is a powerful tool for creating suspense
Dramatic irony is a technique in which the reader knows something that the characters do not. This can create suspense because the reader will eagerly wait for the characters to discover what they already know.
For example, in Othello, William Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to create suspense. The reader knows that Iago plans to kill Othello, but Othello does not know this. This makes the reader anxious to see how the plot will unfold.
#16 Use flashbacks to add suspense
Flashbacks can be a great way to add suspense to your story. They can help the reader understand the backstory of your characters, and they can also create a sense of mystery.
For example, in the TV show “Stranger Things,” a flashback episode reveals what happened to Eleven when the scientists took her. This flashback creates suspense because the viewer wants to discover what happened to her and why she is so special.
Flashbacks can be a great way to keep your readers hooked on your suspense story.
#17 Build anticipation
Anticipation is another key ingredient in suspenseful writing. You can create anticipation by hinting at what is going to happen and slowly revealing your story’s plot.
For example, in Tarzan by Robert Louis Stevenson, the reader is constantly waiting to find out what will happen to Tarzan and Jane. Stevenson uses cliffhangers at the end of every chapter to keep the reader hooked.
Anticipation can keep your readers on the edge of their seats, waiting to find out what happens next.
#18 Use suspenseful language
Suspenseful language can help create a tense atmosphere, keeping the reader hooked on your story. Here are some examples of words and phrases that you can use:
- spine chilling
- edge of your seat
- hair raising
#19 Use your main character to create suspense
The protagonist of your story is a key ingredient in creating suspense. You can use them to hint at what will happen, and you can also use them to reveal clues about the plot.
For example, in the book “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, the main character, Nick Dunne, becomes a suspect in his wife’s disappearance. The reader is constantly waiting to find out what happened to her, and they are also trying to figure out whether Nick is guilty or not.
#20 Create high stakes
One of the best ways to create suspense is to make the stakes high for your characters. You can do this by preventing them from losing something important if they fail. The subplots of your story can also contribute to the suspense. High stakes can create an intense atmosphere and keep your readers engaged in your story.
For example, in the book “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is in danger of being killed if she doesn’t win the games. And if she does win, she will have to face another dangerous challenge. This makes the stakes high for her and keeps the reader hooked on the story.
The subplot of the book also contributes to the suspense, as the reader is constantly waiting to find out what will happen to Katniss’s loved ones.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the mystery behind the allure of vampire romance, like in ‘Twilight’?
Ah, the age-old love for vampires! From the dark and brooding Edward Cullen in “Twilight” penned by Stephenie Meyer to the ancient tales of blood-thirst, there’s something intoxicating about the romance between a hero and a vampire. Maybe it’s the forbidden allure, the dance between danger and desire, or just the ageless charm of the undead!
Why is the element of horror so crucial in suspense writing, especially in novels?
Ever read a novel where your heart races, and you feel a cold shiver down your spine? That’s the power of horror, my friend! The novel isn’t just about words on paper; it’s an experience. When horror sneaks in, it dials up the intensity, making every shadow and rustle feel alive with possibilities.
Can romance and horror really coexist in fiction writing?
Ever heard of “Rebecca” or “Twilight”? Romance and horror might seem like an odd couple, but when they come together – sparks fly! It’s like mixing fire and ice. The sweet moments of love juxtaposed with the chilling horror make the story’s heart beat faster in more ways than one.
How does ‘Whodunit’ differ from other mystery fiction or mystery stories?
Oh, the thrill of the chase! ‘Whodunit’ is like the spicy salsa to your mystery taco. While many mystery stories take you on a roller coaster of clues and red herrings, a classic ‘whodunit’ keeps you guessing till the very end. It’s not just about the crime; it’s about the chase, the characters, and that final ‘Aha!’ moment.
With all these mystery and suspense novels out there, why is ‘Cloud Atlas’ or ‘Heart of Darkness’ still a must-read?
Diving into “Cloud Atlas” or “Heart of Darkness” is like tasting a fine wine. Sure, there’s plenty of mystery fiction out there, but these novels? They’re classics, with layers of stories, emotions, and, of course, suspense. Every read feels like peeling an onion, revealing more about humanity, the world, and ourselves.
How do contemporary authors like Dan Brown infuse old-world charm with modern-day suspense?
Dan Brown, with his gripping tales, is like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. He seamlessly blends ancient symbols, age-old conspiracies with today’s fast-paced world, making the past and the present dance in a tango of suspense. It’s fiction writing at its finest, where every chapter feels like unraveling a piece of art.
What’s the secret sauce that makes characters like Desdemona or heroes in suspense stories so unforgettable?
You know, it’s the little things. The way Desdemona’s emotions play out in “Othello” or how a hero faces their darkest fears. These characters, they’re not just figments of fiction; they’re reflections of us, our hopes, our fears, our dreams. And that’s why, even when the last page is turned, they linger, like the haunting notes of a song long after it’s played.
Suspense is an important tool for any writer, and it’s especially crucial in genres like mystery and thriller. By using suspenseful elements, you can keep your readers engaged and on the edge of their seats. In this article, we looked at 20 examples of suspense from popular books. We discussed what makes these scenes suspenseful and offered tips for creating suspense in your writing.
These are just a few techniques that you can use to create suspense in your writing. By using these tips, you can create an exciting and thrilling story that will keep your readers hooked until the end.
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